This article will be dedicated to the debate of Comedy versus Tragedy. More specifically, how Tragedy has been perceived to be the higher form of art between the two, be it traditionally or stereotypically.
Indeed, nowadays, tragedy might be deemed as superior because it touches upon those profound, timeless and universal problems. In saying this, it is not my intention to alter society’s conventions; quite simply, I am searching for the truth. Moreover, because I tend to put tragedy on a higher pedestal – because I feel it leaves a greater, more profound impact on an audience as when compared to Comedy – I will be discussing it in more detail.
Traditionally, we have always looked at antiquity as the source of various elements present in our nowaday contemporary cultures. For instance, the Greeks gave us statues of beauty and other forms of art, including tragedy. Furthermore, it seems that even till this day, many individuals still try their best to imitate these Greek masterpieces.
Which brings me to question: what exactly is Greek Tragedy?
In ancient Greece, Greek playwrights engaged with the values of their audience, and encouraged them to relate to the world being presented on stage to their own experiences. One of the most influential literary forms that emerged from this was tragedy. This genre was not only accessible to small socio-economic elites (like much theatre in modern Western society), but was performed at popular civic festivals in front of large audiences, consisting of people drawn from all sections of society. The major venue for drama in Athens was the annual civic festival known as the “City Dionysia”, which lasted five days and saw three tragedians compete against each other for the winner tragic play of the festival.
A fundamental point to bear in mind is that Greek tragedy is much more varied than what modern ideas of “the tragic” would lead one to believe. Founded on a misreading of Aristotle’s Poetics, neo-classical scholars and dramatists invented certain rules of tragedy, but these are largely useless because they bear no relation to the surviving ancient plays. This search for the “truly tragic” risks taking too narrow a view of the genre. However, it responds to something that all the surviving plays have in common; human suffering. This concept is even present in the so called “happy ending” tragedies.
In Greek tragedy, there is always suffering and the stakes are always high. The heroes who suffer exist in myth – the raw material of tragedy. Through myth, a distance is created between the audience and the legendary world of the play. In doing so, distressing subject matters can be more easily explored (such as, war, murder, incest, rape, jealousy, etc.), and the intense emotions aroused in an imaginary space are not so close to the audience as to become traumatic to them. One of the most basic moral patterns underlying Greek tragedy is that of “learning through suffering”. Such a concept of “didactic” drama makes us better citizens. This is because Art, in all its forms, should make us better by teaching us true and useful things.
Tragedy’s teaching was notoriously rejected by Plato, for he viewed the genre as morally and psychologically degrading because of its disaster-prone nature and lamenting heroes. By contrast, his student Aristotle argued that human beings learn through “mimesis” (imitation or fiction), thus reaffirming tragedy as an art form capable of importing important knowledge. Aristotle also observed what we might call the “tragic paradox”. This concept refers to the way audiences get pleasure from viewing the suffering of others on stage, which according to him leads to a “Catharsis” (the purging from pity and fear). Mimesis gives the audience the necessary distance to make such contemplation both pleasurable and beneficial.
This is what Aristotle had to say about his idea of “the tragic paradox”:
“Everyone enjoys imitation. A sign of that is what happens in actual cases: for we enjoy looking at very accurate likeliness of things which in themselves are painful to see, for example, the forms of the foulest animals and corpses. The reason for this learning is most pleasant not only to philosophers, but also to other men, even if they share the pleasure only briefly”
However, the pleasure derived from tragedy also has an important moral and metaphysical dimension. At its core, it asks how we are to account for human suffering, and gives us an answer that is bracing, but not pessimistic! Tragedy is interested in disasters that spring from human choices and actions. In fact, suffering in tragedy is never merely random (as is often in real life), but is set in a wider moral framework that gives meaning to human catastrophe. It is a consoling genre and a terrific one too, as we realise that the universe is cruel, but not meaningless. We get to see the cosmic order behind the chaos and grief being presented on stage. Therefore, we emerge from viewing tragedy with our sympathies enlarged and reminded that others have suffered worse.
On a completely different page, yet not on an entirely different scale, one finds Comedy.
This genre is usually concerned with historical and contemporary problems; it is inescapably tied to life. It could therefore be political, satirical, or anything in between. This cannot be said for tragedy.
Comedy was usually set in the here and now of the audience, rather than the distant world of myth. However, its plots are full of fantasy. The comic hero is not some grand figure of heroic myth (like Achilles), but an ordinary Athenian that is unhappy with some aspect of society, and hatches an ingenious plan to realise their dream. Of course, laughter in comedy can be serious, and what makes an audience laugh is then revealing of their own concerns and anxieties.
Comedies tend to be light and jolly, usually containing an outrageous premise or an extremely predictable plot. However, the way Aristotle defined comedy is quite different from the definition that we nowadays give it. Not all comedy had to be, as it were, a joke. According to Aristotle’s classification system, The Aeneid was a comedy.
Mainly, a comic plot is one wherein good things happen to virtuous characters and bad things happen to the errant ones. In a converse manner, a tragic plot is one wherein mainly bad things happen to virtuous characters and good things happen to errant ones. Once again, these ideas are developed more in Aristotle’s Poetics. The idea that comedy had to be funny was installed into the genre well after his death. Moreover, Aristotle regarded “tragedy” as higher than “comedy” for different reasons than we do today.
Above all, I think that tragedy reaffirms our values of what is right and wrong. We cry at the end of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet because we naturally think lovers should love one another and enjoy their life together till the end. We froth at the mouth at the end of Sophocles’ Oedipus because a good man’s life is ruined as a result of his most unfortunate fate. On the other hand, comedy dismantles all these values. Its tools – sarcasm, irony, absurdism, satire – can make us laugh at things we think we should be repulsed by. Comedy does not take things seriously. It minimizes the importance and power that things hold and as a result, it trivialises them. It removes the stench of solemnity from things, forcing them to then be seen in a new light.
As for the reason why tragedies are regarded more highly than comedies, I think that at some points in their lives, many individuals view their life as a tragedy. Most people would admit that they have one flaw which hinders them, and some people live in regret of ‘the greatest mistake’ of their lives. Basically, we are all a bit pessimistic, and we often do feel that things are beyond our control.
Having said this, the reality is that it all depends on what the reader’s expectations are, or what their purpose for reading is. If one is interested in going deeper than the mere passive amusement, which is present in the easily digestible and recognizable pathos of the fall of the tragic hero, than the comedies deliver up a bevy of literary pleasures!
Mariana Debono, a 17 year old University student who’s utterly in awe of literature and philosophy. Writing has always been a passion of mine but lately, more than ever before, I felt a need to give life to my thoughts and publish them… for what difference would it make if we kept everything to ourselves? Longing improvement means working for it, and my way of doing so is through writing, conversing and of course, reading. I want my discourses to help give a clearer vision of reality, something which in this day and age has become almost surreal– it has become a sort of illusion.
We might not know the truth you see… but that doesn’t mean we can never get to it!